Climate crisis: Green recovery ‘only option’ to return to economic prosperity after coronavirus recession, government warned

Following pandemic, UK has ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to improve climate resilience and become global leader on environment, Committee on Climate Change says

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 24 June 2020 23:22
comments
Retrofitting old buildings and designing more efficient housing stock are among the key recommendations, while facilitating active transport is also regarded as vital to ensuring a low-carbon economy in the future
Retrofitting old buildings and designing more efficient housing stock are among the key recommendations, while facilitating active transport is also regarded as vital to ensuring a low-carbon economy in the future

A green recovery is the only option to ensure a resilient economy can emerge amid the prospect of the “biggest economic shock for a generation” due to the coronavirus crisis, the government has been told.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic can still become “a historic turning point in tackling the global climate crisis”, and position the UK as a true leader on environmental policy.

In its annual report to parliament, the committee said urgent steps must be taken in the months ahead to deliver rapid climate progress and accelerate the transition to a cleaner, net-zero emissions economy that will strengthen the country’s resilience to the impacts of climate change.

CCC chair Lord Deben told reporters: “There’s no [other] option. We can’t return to prosperity unless we build a green economy which works for the whole of the nation.”

He added: “The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation. Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together – it’s there for the taking.

“The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience. Choices that lock in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”

The report’s lead author Chris Stark said despite a year passing since the target to hit net-zero by 2050 became law, it had not been a year of progress, and the delay of the COP26 climate conference to November 2021 now provides a window for the UK to “get our ducks in a row and be credible internationally next year”.

The committee has set out five steps for building a resilient economy, and said the pandemic has “demonstrated how quickly social change can occur”.

The steps are:

  • Immediately implement a national plan to renovate inefficient buildings and design new ones to aid the shift to less energy-intensive structures. This will generate new employment and reskilling opportunities across the country.
  • Invest in nature, including in tree planting, peatland restoration and green infrastructure to meet the net zero target and bring benefits for the climate, biodiversity and air quality, as well as reducing flood impacts.
  • Transport and heating must be electrified, new electric vehicle charging points must be rolled out to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 at the latest, new hydrogen and carbon capture and storage infrastructure should be invested in to provide a route to establishing new low-carbon British industries.
  • Active travel such as walking and cycling need to be encouraged through provision of high-quality infrastructure, and remote working encouraged through improved telecommunications networks such as 5G and fibre broadband.
  • UK policy must encourage a circular economy in which biodegradable waste is no longer sent to landfill, and recycling rates are raised. Local authorities need support to invest strategically in a good-quality, low-carbon service for waste collection and disposal and to create new regional jobs. 

The committee said there is currently a window for the government to reinforce the “climate-positive” behaviours that have emerged during the lockdown, including increased remote working, cycling and walking, the report’s authors said.

“It’s here for the taking, but it must happen right now,” Lord Deben said.

The CCC said the actions it has recommended “will deliver an improved economy, better public health, improved biodiversity and access to nature, cleaner air, more comfortable homes and highly productive and rewarding employment”.

“Now is the moment to get our house in order, coordinate national planning, and prepare for the inevitable changes ahead,” said the chair of the CCC’s Adaptation Committee, Baroness Brown of Cambridge.

“Covid-19 has shown that planning for systemic risks is unavoidable. We have warned repeatedly that the UK is poorly prepared for the very serious impacts of climate change, including flooding, overheating and water shortages.

“The UK’s domestic ambition can be the basis for strong international climate leadership, but the delivery of effective new policies must accelerate dramatically if we’re to seize this chance.”

The report has been widely welcomed by business leaders, politicians and environmental campaigners.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said: “This report serves as a stark reminder of the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to the government’s progress on achieving the net-zero emissions target enshrined in law a year ago. All the evidence demonstrating the need for far greater urgency is set out within this report.

“Now is the moment for government to step up and bring forward the most ambitious green recovery programme in the world to address the jobs crisis facing so many people, improve our quality of life and fulfil the UK’s leadership role as COP26 president.”

Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist at the CBI, described the report as “vital” and said businesses must work with the government to bring about major changes to benefit society.

He said: “This vital new report provides an urgent reminder that we need to do more to get on track to achieve net-zero emissions.

“As we look to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis, we reach a critical moment in our fight against the climate emergency. Business stands shoulder to shoulder with political leaders and consumers in its desire for ambitious change.”

Adair Turner, senior fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking and former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, said: “The Committee is absolutely right to stress the huge opportunity for policies which both drive economic recovery and accelerate progress towards a zero-carbon economy.

“In world of rock-bottom interest rates, now is the time to invest in renewable energy and other key forms of green infrastructure; faced with huge employment challenges, policy must focus on creating green jobs and government support for firms should be contingent on strengthened commitments to emission reductions and avoid supporting old technologies and potentially stranded assets.

“Sectors such as renewable energy, tree-planting and home energy retrofits offer major opportunities for near-term job creation and would also shift the UK economy onto a net-zero trajectory. This is a clear win-win opportunity which must be seized.”

Speaking about the measures in the report aimed at improving efficiency in homes, Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “For some time, it’s been obvious that the UK’s building stock is not up to the net-zero standard and during the pandemic, our homes have become more important than ever.

“The CCC’s report really highlights that we have to get a move on – as more than one house per minute will need to be retrofitted to 2050 in order to meet the UK’s climate goals.

Chris Venables, head of politics at the charity and think tank Green Alliance, said the UK “cannot afford another year of stalling” over environment policies.

“MPs and ministers have a lot of reading to do,” he said. “This is an important and urgent report. We’re at a critical juncture in our national efforts to address climate change and host a successful UN climate conference next year, while at the same time responding to coronavirus. The current crisis has helped to highlight how limited our planning is for the major disruptions that climate change will bring to the UK economy.

The CCC is right to demand more from government. The next year will require real leadership and planning across a wide range of fronts if we are to rise to these complex and interlinked challenges. We cannot afford another year of stalling, patchy progress and half-developed policies.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We agree with the Committee that tackling climate change should be at the heart of our economic recovery. 

“We were the first major economy to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and want to ensure that the UK has the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. Our emissions have already fallen by 43 per cent since 1990, and we are investing to deliver more offshore wind power than any other country and reduce emissions from homes and industry.

“We believe that the actions we need to take to achieve our zero emissions target can help to deliver a stronger, cleaner, more sustainable and more resilient economy after this pandemic – and already there are over 460,000 UK jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments